In Canadian Law, it is reasonably rare for an omission to constitute a criminal offence, unless an accused is under a prior duty to act. One such duty exists between parents and children, enumerated in Section 215 of The Criminal Code, which lays out “Duty to Provide Necessaries of Life.” Specifically, s215 (1) (a) states the responsibility of “a parent… to provide necessaries of life for a child under the age of sixteen years.”
‘Necessaries of life’ has been established to include food, drink, medical service, or any other goods and services that preserve life. Crucially, for our purposes, a parent cannot be found guilty if they have a reasonable belief that their child was not in need of medical care. It is the extent of this reasonable belief that I will contend with today, and that is where Family Guy comes in.
In the 12th episode of the 10th season of Family Guy, entitled “Livin’ on a Prayer,” character Stewie befriends a boy named Scotty who suddenly falls ill whilst at Stewie’s house. Stewie’s parents, Peter and Lois, promptly rush Scotty to the hospital. Scotty is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and told he needs to be treated, or else he will die. His parents, who do not believe in medical treatment by virtue of their religious beliefs reject treatment, instead stating that they use their faith as medicine. There is an intriguing legal question to be answered here: if Scotty is not treated, and succumbs to his illness, to what extent are his parents criminally responsible?
It seems clear that Scotty’s parents breached their s215(1) responsibilities to provide the necessaries of life to a child, specifically by denying medical care. Section 215 (2) (a) (ii) states that one commits an offense when “under a legal duty within the meaning of subsection (1), fails without lawful excuse… to perform that duty… if the failure to perform the duty endangers the life of the person to whom the duty is owed, or causes or is likely to cause the health of that person to be endangered permanently.”
However, a complicating factor in this case is the extent Scotty’s parents’ religious beliefs constitutes “a lawful excuse” as discussed in s215(2). It is clear that the parents cannot be found guilty if they have a reasonable belief that the person was not in need of medical care. To distinguish what is and is not a reasonable belief, we must now turn to relevant case law.
In the case of R v Naglik (1993 SCC) [Naglik], an objective standard for these type of omissions was established. The objective standard of s215 was set as punishing a marked departure from the conduct of a reasonably prudent parent. This created a uniform, minimum level of care which must be provided by a reasonably prudent parent to a child under their care.
In the case of B. (R.) v Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto (1995 SCC), it was determined that parents’ right to religious freedom is limited by the child’s right to live. This case bears strong similarity to Scotty’s parents’ case, as the parents refuse a blood transfusion for their child due to their religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ignoring the Charter elements of the case, it was ruled that religious decisions cannot threaten the physical or psychological well-being of others.
The heart of any objective test is the reasonable person standard. In this case, the conduct of Scotty’s parents must live up to the conduct of a reasonably prudent parent, as established by the case law. it is clear that Scotty’s parents’ decision breaches their parental duty to provide him with the necessaries of life by depriving him of adequate medical care, and that religious reasons do not constitute a reasonable “lawful excuse.”
Failing to provide adequate health care to a child due to one’s religious beliefs does not hold water as a potential “lawful excuse” for this deprivation. Scotty’s parents clearly breached the reasonableness standard established in Naglik, as the reasonableness standard—and the reasonable belief in appropriate standard of care that follows—must come from a universal, societal standard, not an idiosyncratic, personal standard like one’s personal religious beliefs.
B. (R.) v Children's Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto (1995 SCC)
R v Naglik (1993 SCC)